Cornelius Van Til vs. Gordon H. Clark: A Personal View. Part 3/3

[This is the final installment in the Clark/Van Til series. In part one I gave a bit of my own history of familiarizing myself with Clark. Part one is here.  In part two I gave an overview of the meaning of Presuppositionalism and a bit of background to the controversy. Part two is here. In writing this, I want to stay close to the topic of the differences between the two and why I side with Clark.  More specifically, I want to express the concerns I have with Van Til. I plan on doing another post on the worldview of Clark specifically in which I will deal with more direct criticisms of his philosophy, many of which are misunderstandings.  I think the vision and contributions of Gordon Clark are magnificent and I want to explain why.  Perhaps I will do this in the form of a book review of W. Gary Crampton’s The Scripturalism of Gordon H. Clark.]

The Theory of Knowledge

In the previous post in this series I touched on the background to the controversy.  The most important concern that was debated was the so-called “incomprehensibility of God.”  What was at issue here was whether man had knowledge and, if so, what was the nature of this knowledge.  As presuppositionalists, both camps argued that the Christian worldview was the foundation for the possibility of knowledge.  And thus, if the thinker refuses to accept the Christian worldview, he cannot make sense of reality at all.  In other words, standing on any other philosophical ground leads to skepticism as not other world view can make sense of reality.  The laws of logic are only justified by assuming the Christian position and the demands of philosophical consistency can only be found in Christianity.  However, Clark and Van Til had different understandings of the nature of knowledge itself and this is precisely why each blamed the other party of skepticism.  This makes sense and is consistent with their respective epistemologies.  Thus, if you read Bahnsen, you will find he accuses Clark of failing to justify knowledge.  And this was also Clark’s frustration of Van Til. (For the purposes of this article, Greg Bahnsen will be considered as representative of the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til and, if cited, John Robbins will be considered as representative of Gordon Clark.)

Gordon Clark held that truth was propositional and thus to know the truth was to know the correct propositions.  Scripture is made up of propositions, the true propositions directly from the mind of God.  Thus, man can know the truth by believing the words of the Bible.  The knowledge of God was and is in the form of propositions and therefore, when we hold to the same propositions as God does, we know the same truth as he does.  Things are true because they are God’s thoughts.  This is all to say that the knowledge that man holds is qualitatively the same as God’s knowledge.  When God says: “the cat is black,” it means the very same thing as when man says it.  In the same way, Romans 4:25 reads, Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”  These are God’s words, written down by Paul.  But that is a proposition that has the same meaning whether it is stated by me or Paul, speaking for God.  How can man have the same qualitative thought as God?  Because we are created in God’s image and our minds are structured to know Him!

But Van Til would disagree here and put forth his belief that knowledge is analogous.  Indeed, he writes, “Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical.”  For Van Til, the content of God’s mind was qualitatively different than the content of man’s.  This is a very dangerous doctrine as it is worthy of the very same criticism that the Van Tillians applied to a variety of secularists and atheists.  If man cannot know the same thoughts as God, he cannot know anything at all.  At least, that should be the consistent presuppositionalist conclusion.  If we understand Scripture to mean one thing, but God means it in another way, how can we be sure we know God?  The answer is actually worse then it may seem because for Van Til, knowledge itself is analogous and thus it is impossible to know God at all.  As W. Gary Crampton explains: “if all we have is an analogy of the truth, as in Van Til’s perspective, then we do not have the truth. A mere analogy of the truth, without a univocal point of understanding, is not “the truth.”  Even more astoundingly, Van Til denied that all truth was propositional.  How it was possible to make a statement of truth without proposition is inexplicable.  Crampton also writes:

The problem here is that if there is no univocal point at which man’s knowledge meets God’s knowledge, then man can never know the truth. Why? Because God is omniscient, i.e., he knows all truth. Hence, if man does not know what God knows, his ideas can never be true. Or, to say it another way, if Van Til’s concept of analogical knowledge were true, then it would not be possible for man to do what Van Til calls on him to do, i.e., “to think God’s thoughts after him” (92). In fact, it would not be possible for his theory of analogy to be true.

…Clark was correct when he maintained that Van Til’s concept of analogical knowledge is much closer to that of Thomas Aquinas than Van Tilians are willing to admit. Such a view, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to skepticism. Simply stated, an analogy of the truth is not the truth.

 Logic and Scripture

If the truth of God cannot be known, then logic too must be discouraged.  Van Til often made it plain that Scripture was full of apparent contradictions and paradox.  As the late Robert Reymond showed, since paradoxes by definition cannot be reconciled logically, a systematic theology is impossible.  How can paradoxes be harmonized at all and how can there be a system of Biblical truth?

John Robbins, in his Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth, is correct to point out that “nearly every reference to logic in [Van Til’s] books is a disparaging reference.  He continually criticizes, belittles, and deprecates logic, not the misuse of logic, but logic itself.”  Robbins also quotes Van Til to say: “Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge.  Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical.”  Yes, Van Til has seemed to join the neo-orthodox theologians like Barth and Brunner and embraced a religion founded in irrationalism and confusion.

It is also relevant to note that the Westminster Confession, to which both Clark and Van Til claimed adherence, teaches that the method of epistemology is deduction: “The whole council of God… is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture….”  But this deduction cannot be possible if our knowledge is analogy or if logic is excluded.  And Van Til even says that, as quoted by Robbins, “this statement [in the confession] should not be used as a justification for deductive exegesis.”

Compare Van Til with Gordon Clark who embraced logic as the way God thinks.  Thus, if we are to know anything at all, especially God, we must use logic.  God is the source of truth and all his thoughts are internally consistent since God does not contradict Himself.  This is the foundation for logic and it is expressed in the Bible.  The Scripture is part of the mind of Christ and thus must be perfect to the same extent that God is perfect.  A paradox in Scripture would be a paradox in the mind of Christ.  The Christian worldview is internally consistent because it is based on the Word, that is, the mind, of God.  As Christians, we can apply the logical principles of Scripture to all of life and show the irrationality of all other religions and epistemologies, including the epistemology of Van Til.

The Trinity

Van Til was famous for his understanding of the Trinity, and he is notorious for his belief that the trinity was, to use his own words, both “one person” and “three persons” at the same time.  This is absurdity!  He writes: “We must maintain that God is numerically one, He is one person…. We speak of God as a person; yet we speak also of three persons in the Godhead.”  Let us look at what the Westminster Confession says: “in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, of one substance.”  The confession teaches that God is one in a specific sense, yet three in another sense.  But Van Til teaches that God is both one and three in the same sense.  This is a result of his willingness to embrace confusion and to reject logical consistency.  Now, one may not do as well as Clark does at defining terms and presenting the doctrine of the trinity coherently, but at the very least surely we must make a distinction about the way in which God is one versus the way in which God is three.  To hold that God is one and three in the same way is contradictory.  Clark’s own solution was to actually take the time to define both “substance” and “person” and defend the orthodox view of the trinity.  One wonders what happens to our Christian doctrine if we don’t even get the nature of the Triune God correct.

Apologetic Method

Apologetically, presuppositionalism holds that the historic “proofs” of God’s existence are not only inadequate, but also flawed (or perhaps inadequate because they are flawed).  And Clark consistently held that these arguments cannot “prove” God.  But, contrary to popular belief, Van Til disagrees with Clark affirms the usage of the historical “proofs.”  Crampton quotes Van Til:

”Men ought to reason analogically from nature to nature’s God. Men ought, therefore, to use the cosmological argument analogically in order thus to conclude that God is the creator of this universe. . . . Men ought also to use the ontological argument analogically. . . . The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down the validity of this argument to the probability level. The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound. . . . Thus there is an absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism.”

Quite ironically then, the man who has been deemed “Mr. Presuppositionalist” was not a consistent presuppositionalist.  Now, the reader may reference Bahnsen’s debates and use of the “transcendental method” in showing the intelligibility of the Christian worldview.  But in this way, and in several other ways, Bahnsen actually teaches something that Van Til never taught.  And Bahnsen should be happily seen as deviating from Van Til when he uses this method.  That is to say, Bahnsen is far more logical and Biblical in his apologetic than is Van Til.  Sadly, most people today read Van Til through the lens of Bahnsen, and thus see a better philosopher than Van Til actually was.  Bahnsen should be seen as a more consistent presuppositionalist than Van Til.

But because Clark rightly pointed out that Presuppositionalism cannot endorse the historic proofs, I must side with him here as well.  Warning: don’t assume that you understand the thought of Van Til simply by reading Bahnsen.  Yes, Bahnsen was a Van Tillian, but he was certainly the better philosopher.  Van Til must be read directly and I am convinced that the reader will find considerable differences between Van Til and Bahnsen’s explanation of Van Til.  In many ways, Bahnsen saved Van Til from his own confusions.

Cornelius Van Til: The Man and the Myth

This was the title of John Robbins’ famous analysis of Van Til and the interested reader is encouraged to purchase this very cheap pamphlet here.  Robbins breaks his analysis up into a number of concerns.  They are as follows, with my summary:

Van Til the Communicator: Van Til was not clear, constantly contradicted himself, and often embraced unintelligible conclusions.  Clark on the other hand was so specific and clear in his explanations that one is almost never left wondering Clark’s position.

Van Til the Historian: Van Til often misrepresented various philosophers and theologians that he wished to analyze.  Of course, this area is unfair if we want to compare Van Til with Clark because, in my estimation, Clark has one of the greatest understandings the historical philosophy that I have ever encountered.

Van Til the Presuppositionalist: Van Til has several times endorsed the “proofs” for the existence of God even though to be a presuppositionalist means that God’s existence must be presupposed.  He thought that these proofs could be improved however and put forth in a more Christian way.  Unfortunately, he never showed how this could or should be done and, to quote Robbins: “Dr. Gordon Clark’s repeated requests to see Dr. Van Til’s new version of the theistic proofs” were left unanswered.

Van Til the Theologian: The Christian and Van Tillian understanding of the Trinity are different.  His understanding of the trinity is only possible because he rejects the use of logic and endorses the belief that “all teaching of Scripture is apparently contradictory.”  He is critical of those who make efforts to defend the Christian faith logically.

Van Til and Clark: Both believed in the incomprehensibility of God, but meant different things by it.  Van Til held that man could only know an analogy of truth.  When it came to incomprehensibility, Clark agreed with sound theologians like Charles Hodge who said (as quoted by Robbins):

When it is said that God can be known, it is not meant that he can be comprehended.  To comprehend is to have a complete and exhaustive knowledge of an object.

So God can be known but not comprehended.  But for Van Til, this was not good enough.  He taught that God could neither be known nor comprehended.  Robbins states: “If it were true that [quoting Van Til]: ‘man does not at any point have in his mind exactly the same thought content that God has in his mind,” then the Bible would be a fraud.  The Bible is the words and the thoughts of both God and men.  Its entire purpose is to reveal truth to men: ‘And ye shall know the truth.'”  This is the crux of my endorsement of Gordon H. Clark.  We shall know the truth!  Clark, not Van Til, presents Christianity in a way that is consistent and intelligible.  The truth can be known (by the work of the Holy Spirit) and it is by believing this propositional truth, that we are saved from our sin.  Salvation comes through faith, which is synonymous with belief (see J. Gresham Machen in What is Faith?).  And it is absurd to say that we believe that which we do not know.  Salvation then, since it concerns the mind and knowledge, is an epistemological problem.  And it is clear in reading Van Til that his epistemology is heavily tainted with pious irrationalism.

I hope the reader takes the time to look into the thought of Gordon H. Clark.  It is impactful and mind blowing.  He is so clear, logical, profound, and simple.  I have learned to love the work of Gordon H. Clark and am convinced you will too.  Now, I am sure there will be many questions from my beloved Van Tillians.  I will take these questions and write another article.  I already have seen some concerns come to me and I am happy to discuss these.  Also, one more note, I do believe that many people don’t realize exactly what Van Til thought because they have learned about him from his much better student, Greg Bahnsen.  So be objective!  (Yes, I do agree with Bahnsen (and Clark) when he teaches that people “aren’t neutral and you shouldn’t be.” 🙂

Below are some more resources:

A review of Greg Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended.   This review focuses on Bahnsen’s claims against Clark.

W. Gary Crampton: Why I am Not a Van Tillian”

W. Gary Crampton: “Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of his Thought”

John Robbins: “An Introduction to Gordon Clark.




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